So, how often do you do it, and how do you do it? Not as often as you would like? Or are you bored at just how often you end up doing it? Well if that’s the case you might be the exception to the rule, because in my experience, churches that regularly create safe spaces for young (and old) Christians to talk openly about sex are still hard to find.
What else did you think I was talking about?
Joking aside, talking to teens about sex has become a big issue, not just within the church community. You don’t have to look very far to see proof; concerns over the sexualisation of young people (in particular teenage girls), MP suggestions about teaching sexual abstinence that never get off the ground, growing evidence around the amount of porn young people see and countless programmes charting the loss of young people’s virginity demonstrate just how ‘hot’ a topic teen sex is.
In an increasingly sexually progressive culture, Christian teaching on sexuality is often viewed as backward and sex-negative.
So it can be difficult to communicate with wider society about the impact faith in Jesus has on shaping healthy attitudes to sexual intimacy. But it appears that it’s also difficult to talk in church about the impact our Christian discipleship should have on our love lives.
Across the pond, research conducted in December 2006 by the Guttmacher Institute caused huge controversy by claiming that 94% of Americans had their first sexual experience before they were married. For a nation where 90% claim to be God-fearing (2011 Gallup Poll) this came as a bit of a surprise! The controversial study claimed that by age 20, 75% of Americans had had premarital sex. By the age of 44, that number had increased to 94%. The book went on to report that not only are more young Americans (the God-fearing kind included) having premarital sex, but they are having premarital sex with more partners.
But before we crow too loudly, I have a hunch that young American Christians are not alone in expressing confusion at what obedience to Jesus really means. In response to a question from a British Christian youth worker wanting to be a positive role model and sleep with his girlfriend, Brian McClaren posted on his blog, ‘Being a Christ-follower carries with it an “emptying” of certain freedoms- it’s worthwhile for us to ask what sexual freedoms are also relinquished in professing Christ.’
Relinquishing freedoms. Not easy.
Last summer a teenage girl at a youth festival told me that ‘the Jesus I know wouldn’t expect me to wait ‘til I got married until I had sex; he doesn’t make demands of me like that. He accepts me as I am and wants me to be happy.’ The following day I had a conversation with a young man so cut up with previous sexual experience that he felt certain that God could never use him. That night I prayed with a teenage couple who felt a huge amount of ‘guilt and shame’ about the way they were expressing their sexual and loving feelings for each other. They hadn’t had penetrative sex, but each time they were alone together they got swept away on a wave of overwhelming desire. Clothes came off and boundaries went out the window. They were torn between exploring their passion further and their desire to do the right thing in God’s eyes. They were getting nowhere, fast! Jesus and happiness. God and anger. Sex and guilt. All perspectives from young people who love Jesus and are choosing to follow him.
It’s wonderful that over the past few years we as Church have woken up to the fact that simply saying ‘just don’t do it’ just won’t do it! But in the absence of good guidance and robust support, are some of our young disciples in danger of having too high or too low a view of sex? For all those who know that the Bible challenges sex outside of marriage, do they know that it highly recommends it within? (1 Corinthians 7:1-6) Are we, their youth pastors, sometimes in danger of assuming that our core group know it all already, that if they appear to be growing with God in other areas of their lives they have got the whole sex thing sussed? The reality is that many of them don’t. The seemingly ‘sorted’ Christian couple who feel the need to present a perfect front, the guy, ashamed of sexual thoughts that feel out of control, or the girl struggling with masturbation that is becoming addictive, all need to know that they are not alone and this is not the end of the story.
For others the struggle might not be to do with sex at all, but whether their desire to meet and marry ‘the One’ will make it impossible for them to meet and marry anyone. ‘I want to remain pure and hold out for the person God has for me,’ explains Annie. ‘Of course there is also the constant problem of worrying whether that person actually exists and wondering if my standards of finding a great and godly guy are too high.’
What should our response be? How can we as youth pastors support young people in this area and create places of real freedom to talk about struggles and, most importantly, shift the emphasis of sexual purity away from just what’s on show, to the hidden places of our hearts and minds. How can we celebrate real integrity, rather than applaud the appearance of purity?
PURITY CLUB Sometimes it’s worth starting with word definitions and distinctions. Sexual purity and sexual innocence are not the same. Our role is not to keep teenagers in a state of innocence (which could quickly become ignorance), but to equip them to make positive, responsible and godly choices. Increasing sexual awareness and curiosity is all part of a healthy adolescent development and should not be treated as something dirty or worrying. The Teenage Purity movement within contemporary Christian theology can sometimes be in danger of losing the strength of its message in an obsession with genital penetration and wanting to protect young people from knowing about sex. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but we need to react positively to young people’s questions and concerns to enable them to respond positively and wisely to God’s gift of human relationships and sexuality.
When the word ‘impurity’ appears in the Bible it is generally in relation to behaviour that is beneath us as children of light (Ephesians 5:3), whereas ‘purity’ pops up only a few times in reference to how people show their commitment to God. Paul encourages his young disciple, Timothy, to let his lifestyle speak volumes about his love for Jesus (1 Timothy 4:12).
Paul recognises that it isn’t a one-off decision, but a series of daily decisions to choose to surrender ourselves to the master. Purity isn’t simply about saying no to sex outside of marriage, it’s about saying yes to a radical lifestyle that enables us to be free to build friendships with others in non-threatening ways and demonstrates whose pattern of life we are following (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
It enables us to resist having an unbalanced attitude to sex. Throughout the years, this has been a constant struggle within Christianity. ‘For my soul’s freedom’ wrote St Augstine, ‘I resolved not to desire, nor to seek, nor to marry a wife. Sexuality is a lustful sin.’
In attempting to choose sexual purity, I’ve met teenage couples who have played down the importance of sex to such an extent that they choose the kind of relationship that is devoid of any physical attraction at all. ‘It’s OK for us to literally just sleep together,’ I was once told, ‘because we don’t fancy each other in that way and would never be tempted to have sex.’
‘Then why are you together?’ I wanted to ask!
Of course there is so much more to healthy marriages than just sexual attraction, but pretending that it doesn’t play any role at all is not Biblical. When the author of the Song of Solomon talks about raging waters never washing away love, he isn’t talking about parental or friendship love. He’s probably writing from his own experience of being taken over by a deep and overwhelming sexual desire for the woman who has captured his heart and whose body he longs to touch.
SKIN ON SKIN There is one idea, central to the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, that crops up a number of times (Genesis 2:24, Mark 10:8, 1 Corinthians 6:16-17). In Matthew 19:5-6, Jesus uses the word ‘Lebascar Ached’, which means ‘to be glued into one person.’
‘There’s more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact. As written in Scripture, “The two become one.” Since we want to become spiritually one with the master, we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever—the kind of sex that can never “become one.”’ (1 Corinthians 6:16)
Although the context of good sex is marriage, young people need to know that singleness doesn’t eliminate us from living full and godly lives – Jesus demonstrated this. Christian theology has a lot to offer young people who are becoming sexually mature as well as dealing with the reality of singleness.
CREATE A CULTURE OF HONESTY Although many of us would love to cut to the chase and find out what’s really going on for our young people, this is not a call to launch a witch hunt or second guess them. I once heard of a church where the youth leader and parents went through all the young people’s bedrooms (with a video camera) in an attempt to ‘help’ their young people bring all their struggles and secret sins ‘into the light’. Sadly, the young people never had the chance to return the favour to their parents; probably because they had left the church en masse.
One of my favourite phrases is ‘if it ain’t modelled, it ain’t mimicked.’ Many of us are all too aware of our own short-fallings in this area, and we may want to avoid getting into any situation where young people may feel we are being hypocritical. It’s time to gently but resolutely get over ourselves! All of us have fallen far short of God’s best for us time and time again. That’s why we can bask in the recklessness of God’s costly grace. We can, like Paul, say to our young people, ‘Follow me, as I follow Christ!’ (1 Corinthians 11:1)
Who is mentoring your young disciples? Make sure it isn’t only you or the gap year interns who get alongside the young people. You will have older and wiser adults in your church who, with training and support, could create the relationships with young people to allow these conversations to go as wide, deep and long as they need.
RECKLESS GRACE A while ago I chatted with Sandra, worried Mum of 18-year-old Tom. Sandra and Tom have a good relationship. On the whole they talk about real things and trust each other. Sandra is so eager for Tom to follow Jesus. Tom is so eager in following Jesus. But Sandra has a hunch that Tom isn’t a virgin – and it’s really cutting her up. It’s the one thing that Tom won’t talk to her about, so she imagines all kind of scenarios completely out of keeping with Tom’s character.
She asked me for advice. I didn’t really want to go down that route, so instead we began to chat about the moment in Sandra’s own life when she realised that no matter how far she pushed boundaries and tested waters, she didn’t get to the end of God’s loving grace.
We talked about how she had grown up saving sex for marriage not out of love for God, but out of fear of what the church would do if she fell pregnant. We talked about the worry that so many of us have that if people really knew our thoughts they would reject us for the scumbags that we are. Then I asked Sandra, ‘What would you like Tom to know about God right now?’ She thought for a moment and then shared her hopes for Tom to know, without any doubt, that he is God’s son, loved beyond belief and able to live his one, wild and precious life in the knowledge that he is already free.
Purity matters, but grace matters more – and God’s grace is enough.
‘If with Christ you died to this world, why do you submit to regulations; “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’ (Colossians 2: 20-22)
TAKE IT FURTHER
You can define a sexually pure lifestyle as one that is free from:
• sexual experience (or stopping sexual experiences if you have already started)
• believing the sexual distortions in culture/peer groups or in bad theology (i.e. sex is bad)
• being obsessed with relationships, identity and sex.
Use these as discussion starters with your young people. Ask them for ways that you as mentors/leaders can support them in being free in these areas. How might they support and champion each other’s choices to be sexually pure in their friendships and relationships?
Youth workers, you too can handle the hot topics with confidence and grace. Go to www.romanceacademy.org to find out more about our resources and training opportunities. RACHEL GARDNER is the director of Romance Academy, a charity which aims to break the cycle of damaging relationships by giving young people the tools to make positive choices around their sexual health; recognise and respect sexual context; develop empathy; seek faithfulness and build self-worth.